When It’s Okay to Be List-y

There’s a great piece on Flavorwire that anthologizes ten lists “that seem like they could be poems in and of themselves.” The writers responsible for these lists are diverse. I’m reminded of a term for a writerly sin that Gil and I coined — being “list-y,” filling a passage with a bunch of wonderful facts that when run together just add up to dead weight.

But sometimes a list is a dynamic object, grocery lists, laundry lists, books to read, resolutions of every kind. Bucket lists itemizing the wonderful activities you’ll someday get around to… although I have instead a fuck-it list, things I will not in any circumstances ever do in my lifetime, the ones I refuse to consider, like bungee-jumping from a helicopter or white water rafting down a too-exciting Colorado River.

There’s nothing quite like rediscovering a scrap of paper — buried on your desk or in your bag — and realizing that you’ve actually accomplished the things on it. Ta-da. I did something! No matter how small. I returned the DVD to the library. I picked the tomatoes.

tomatoes copy

And I remember what that day was, the crumbly soil, the sun, the smell of the tomato stems when I cut them. How my lower back felt when I was done. The taste of the salad, later. It all comes back with pencilled words on a scrap of paper. A list enumerates the world.

Here you can see Leonardo da Vinci present his qualifications for a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza in the early 1480s. One bullet point refers to his early designs for military tanks: “Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it.”

da vinci

Nora Ephron writes about the things that she won’t miss when she’s gone.

Nora Ephron

Two are “washing my hair” and “the sound of the vacuum.”

Woody Guthrie gives his new year’s resolutions for 1942, including “Listen to radio a lot” and “Help win war—beat fascism.”

Folk Musician Woody Guthrie

Sullivan’s Travels director Preston Sturges’s decrees “eleven rules for box-office appeal.”


The whole series is great:

A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

A leg is better than an arm.

A bedroom is better than a living room.

An arrival is better than a departure.

A birth is better than a death.

A chase is better than a chat.

A dog is better than a landscape.

A kitten is better than a dog.

A baby is better than a kitten.

A kiss is better than a baby.

A pratfall is better than anything.

Pianist Thelonius Monk takes a bold-faced approach to giving advice to musicians in 1960.


Two are:




What I think I like the best of this selection is Isaac Newton’s itemization of his recently committed sins, penned when he was 19 years old, in 1661 – several years before he set his mind to the principles of calculus.

isaac newton

And so I’m going to borrow from Flavorwire to run Newton’s list in its entirety, from his notebook:

Before Whitsunday 1662

Using the word (God) openly

Eating an apple at Thy house

Making a feather while on Thy day

Denying that I made it.

Making a mousetrap on Thy day

Contriving of the chimes on Thy day

Squirting water on Thy day

Making pies on Sunday night

Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day

Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him

Carelessly hearing and committing many sermons

Refusing to go to the close at my mothers command

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them

Wishing death and hoping it to some

Striking many

Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese

Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer

Denying that I did so

Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew of it

Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee

A relapse

A relapse

A breaking again of my covenant renued in the Lords Supper

Punching my sister

Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar

Calling Dorothy Rose a jade

Glutiny in my sickness

Peevishness with my mother

With my sister

Falling out with the servants

Divers commissions of alle my duties

Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times

Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections

Not living according to my belief

Not loving Thee for Thy self

Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us

Not desiring Thy ordinances

Not long {longing} for Thee in {illeg}

Fearing man above Thee

Using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses

Caring for worldly things more than God

Not craving a blessing from God on our honest endeavors.

Missing chapel.

Beating Arthur Storer.

Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter.

Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne.

Twisting a cord on Sunday morning

Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday

Since Whitsunday 1662



Using Wilfords towel to spare my own

Negligence at the chapel.

Sermons at Saint Marys (4)

Lying about a louse

Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a sot.

Neglecting to pray 3

Helping Pettit to make his water watch at 12 of the clock on Saturday night


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Writers, Writing

4 responses to “When It’s Okay to Be List-y

  1. Thanks for the recommendation, that looks like a great site. I guess if you did it with a taller stack it would be a different kind of poem, more Tennyson than Dickinson.

  2. Glad you liked the Flavorwire piece. They often have entertaining lists.


    Which also reminds me of BOOKMASHING… the titles of a stack of five books read like poetry. One of my favorite bloggers did a piece on that yesterday: the blog is called SENTENCE FIRST. (Verdict later.)


    That FLAVORWIRE piece entertained me, just now, so thanks for naming it; it includes the short list of William T. Vollman, a prolific writer (previously unknown to me, so I googled him), who writes about an astounding range of subjects, and whose EUROPE CENTRAL won the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction. (It is now listed in books that don’t appeal to me). I guess his five-year STRAUSS LIVING AWARD has just about expired.

    #3 on his “List of Social Changes that Would Assist the Flourishing of Literary Beauty”: “Make citizenship contingent upon literacy in every sense. Thus, politicians who do not write every word of their own speeches should be thrown out of office in disgrace. Writers who require editors to make their books “good” should be depublished.”

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